Museum Boom

September 27, 1974

Report Outline
Growth and Crisis of Recent Years
Development of Museums in America
Attempts to Strengthen U.S. Museums
Special Focus

Growth and Crisis of Recent Years

Financial Plight Arising From Popular Success

On october fourth, one more major American museum opens to the public. An unprecedented collection of modern sculpture and painting will go on display at the new Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. On Oct. 2 a new museum devoted exclusively to photography, the International Center of Photography, will open at Audubon House in New York. The Museum of Cartoon Art in Greenwich, Conn., the Wine Museum of San Francisco and the Essex, Vt., Community Museum recently opened their doors, while plans have been announced for a Brooklyn Bridge Museum and a library-museum complex in Ashland, Ala., to memorialize the late Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. America is experiencing a museum explosion without parallel: a new museum opens somewhere in the country every three days.

This is also a time of unparalleled crisis for museums, which are victims not only of the financial difficulties common to all cultural institutions, but of special problems arising from their own spectacular popularity. Increased leisure time, higher standards of education among young people, and imaginative new exhibition techniques now encourage some 700 million annual visits to the nation's 5,000 museums, according to the American Association of Museums. Yet in the face of growing demand, more than one-third of the institutions have been forced to reduce their facilities, services or staff. In 1968 the association's Belmont Report on the state of American museums concluded: “The totally unpredicted popular success of American museums has strained their financial reserves to the breaking point, has compelled them to deny service to much of the public and will require many of them, unless help comes, to close their doors.”

This financial plight, heightened by new pressures from inside and outside, is forcing many museum administrators to redefine their goals. How can a museum's success be measured: in the size of its collection, its attendance figures, its educational programs? The museum's objects, the staff that cares for them, and the public's need for education and diversion often make conflicting demands on the institution's limited resources. The museum director, once thought to occupy the most genteel of managerial posts, has found himself in recent years confronting inflation, technological challenges and demands for “social responsibility” much like those facing the directors of other large organizations.

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